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Last Updated: Friday, 30 November 2007, 11:35 GMT
Thrills and spills and record breaks
Michael Jackson in Thriller video

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Try to remember what Michael Jackson was like before the court case, the cosmetic surgery, the Messiah complex. Think back to 25 years ago, when Thriller, the top selling album of all time, was released.

"I wanted to marry him and I wanted him to walk down the aisle of my local church in the red leather trousers he wore in the Thriller video and that red leather jacket, with the black trim. We'd moonwalk back up it as man and wife."

As a teenager in Essex, Joanna Taylor was not alone in wanting to marry Michael Jackson. All her friends did, in fact it was a dream shared by millions of girls across the UK and the rest of the world.

He might be more of a controversial figure nowadays, but in the early 1980s Jackson could not put a foot wrong. Men wanted to be him, women wanted to have his babies and musicians wanted to make records like him.

Michael Jackson
Jackson is now a controversial figure
His arrival as a superstar can be pinned down to one date - December 1, 1982. It was the day his Thriller album was released. It is credited with changing music and much, much more.

Its list of record-breaking achievements is probably a record in itself. It's the highest-selling album in history, shifting 65m according to the Guinness Book of World Records. His own people put the figure at 105m.

It spent 37 weeks at the top of the US charts, a record for a non-soundtrack recording. It won the most ever Grammys in one night - eight - and was the first album to spawn seven Top 10 hits. The list goes on.

But Thriller is not just a musical phenomenon, it is a cultural one too. After it everyone from Bombay to Basingstoke wanted to be Jackson and dance like him. For the first time a young black man became the idol of millions of people across the world.

Rule breaker

"It had never happened before, not on that level," says DJ Trevor Nelson, who was 16 when the album was released.

"Black, white, male, female - everyone felt they owned him. I got as excited as the girls watching him, it was acceptable for blokes to love him as well."

Jackson's crossover appeal is something no other artist had achieved. Jackson showed musical genres could be mixed, using artists like rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen.

His wide appeal was highlighted at the 1983 Grammy awards, when he won best male vocal performance in the pop, rock and R&B categories.

Singer Chris Brown at this year's World Music Awards
Thriller is still influencing rising stars
It wasn't the only rule he broke. The length of the introduction to Billie Jean was unheard of before. But while Jackson was breaking the rules in the recording studio, he was also rewriting rules in the UK.

"In the clubs you'd hear them playing the whole album, sometimes back to back," says DJ Tim Westwood, speaking to BBC 1Xtra.

What Thriller also achieved is one of those rare where-were-you-at-the-time moments. When the single of the same name was released it was accompanied by a 14-minute mini movie that redefined the concept of music videos.

The choreography, the make-up and the special effects were all groundbreaking. It broke records for being the most expensive video ever made and the longest. It remains the biggest selling music video of all time and people remember seeing it for the first time.

"It was one of those life-stopping moments," says Nelson. "It was premiered after the watershed and I remember being allowed to stay up with my sisters to watch it. There was so much hype, the whole thing went berserk. We all videoed it and took it into college the next day."

Bizarre tributes

DJ Tim Westwood remembers being in a nightclub at the time. "Everyone in that club was squeezed round a tiny TV in the reception area and they were playing the Thriller video for the first time," he says.

Just look at YouTube to understand the impact the video made. Tributes range from 1,500 inmates in a Philippines prison doing the Thriller dance to a Bollywood version.

It wasn't the only life-stopping moment Thriller provided. When Jackson performed Billie Jean live on a 1983 show celebrating Motown, the moonwalk went global.

The album is still making an impact on new audiences. Mohammed Rizwan, 22, wasn't even born when the album was released.

Michael Jackson in Thriller video
"I first heard it in 1997 when I was studying music GCSE," he says. "I love everything about the songs and the video for Billie Jean, I was mesmerised watching it. The dancing, the lighting of the steps, the jacket, everything about it still stands out."

It's acknowledged that much of the success of Thriller is down to the team Jackson assembled around him to create it, notably producer Quincy Jones. But Jackson still brought something to the mix that no other artist could.

"Most people are aware that Jackson only played a minor role in much of the record," says Tim Warner, lecturer in music at Salford University. "But no-one else could have provided his persona, which was also vital. The team were all interdependent on each other."

Nelson agrees. "If that album was made by another artist it would have shifted 10 million, but only Michael Jackson could have made it the highest-selling album in history."

Artistic compromises

Thriller is not without criticism. To appeal to so many, Jackson is said to have made compromises - and not only artistically, says Mr Warner. "It's at that point he seemed to go into denial of his race."

But most agree that Thriller is worthy of its place in music history because it not only changed pop music, it became the blueprint for it.

"People talk about Usher and about Justin Timberlake but the very essence of those artists, with the dancing and the vocal range, that all goes back to Michael Jackson," says Westwood. "And those artists are nothing near touching, approaching the greatness of Michael."

And quite simply, you can't argue with that many record sales. "The whole of music history changes when something of that magnitude takes place," says Mr Warner.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

He epitomised everything that was wonderful about music in the '80s and now he represents all that we dislike about fame, fortune and notoriety. I saw him at Roundhay Park in Leeds and it was the most exciting, professional and memorable concert I have ever been to, and even with all the supposition and hype attached to him, I will always be proud and happy to have seen him live.
Lesley Charlton, Northumberland

Michael Jackson is a freak of nature. One of the best singers ever, best dancer ever by a mile, best music video artist. The best songs on his albums are usually the ones written by him and to top it all off, his personal life is so insane that the public are still obsessed by him even though he hasn't really done anything notable for 10 years. For all his inadequacies, he is one very, very clever man.
Paul Murray, UK

Sorry, seeing "Thriller" was not one of those "where were you?" moments. All I thought was that it was boring line-dancing with an ending that was more clichéd than a Sun headline. Then again, we had been spoilt in previous years with the likes of Godley & Creme, Madness and Adam & The Ants redefining what you could do with pop video; a lip-synced routine to a bog-standard dance track was hardly groundbreaking or imaginative. Pan's People had done the same sort of thing 10 years before. And perhaps given that the single itself barely scraped the top 10 perhaps the article is slightly exaggerating just how much of an impact it really had on the British public? The Human League's "Dare" was a more successful album in terms of hits...
RH, Birmingham, UK

At one stage I truly believed Michael Jackson to be some form of celestial being or the Devil. In 1988, during the middle of my 2 year old daughters birthday party, a Michael Jackson video was played. From the moment it came on, every child in the room looked as if they were frozen in time. Watching the video they did not move, did not talk. Whatever they were doing they stopped and the moment the video finished it was like switching a light back on. Who else can do that to a group of 20 or so "impressionable" 2/3 year olds?
Michael Woodstock, London

I was in Ghana as a little kid, and the furore surrounding thriller was bizarre - you had to literally beg friends with videos to watch the musical
Joe, Aberdeen

I always thought Thriller was overhyped on account of the video and liked Off the Wall better as an album.
Linda, Kirkcaldy

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